Long Live the King of the Blues
By Steven Sharp
B.B. King has done more than any artist in history to provide blues with acceptance and respect around the world. The tenacious King, with his dignified demeanor and sophisticated, yet earthy musical style, has managed to bridge enormous expanses created by politics, economics, race and culture. From China to the chitlin’ circuit, from college campuses to the mansions of Britain’s rock elite, King is acknowledged as an icon and ambassador of American culture.
And King is the first and last of his kind. The increasing fragmentation of music, as well as King’s unique talent, personality and longevity, point to the probability that there will never again be a blues figure who is more instantly recognizable in popular culture.
In May 1946, at age 20, King, then a sharecropper and tractor driver making about $1 a day, left his home in Mississippi for Memphis. He had only $2.50 in his pocket, and little did he know that, at that time, he had just begun what would turn out to be his life's quest — to patiently move blues from its origins in downhome Delta juke joints to the world's finest concert halls.
King is a true visionary of blues. He was among the first to take blues out on the long highway and to see, on a grand scale, the connection between extensive touring and the sales of records. While King has been working to sell blues to the public, he has also been busy innovating and adding to the music. In his early days, King fused powerful, gospel-inflected vocals and stately, intricate, Texas-flavored blues guitar with the raw guts of Mississippi Delta blues, thus creating and perfecting a hybrid that has been an inspiration to rural and urban musicians alike. His use of a large band with a powerful horn section, elaborate musical arrangements and even strings, also made him popular and influential in the blues world. Today he continues to build on the music, incorporating elements of jazz, funk, pop and soul. And few blues guitarists can match King's clean power and dexterity.
Along the sometimes lonely road that King has chosen for himself and his music, he has gained and lost musicians, friends and lovers. His relationships with spouses and his children have suffered, but he has kept pressing forward. There exists within King a relentless drive to learn, grow and accomplish goals. In June 1999 at the age of 73, King, who is diabetic, still adheres to a staggering schedule of shows, hop-scotching across the globe, and he says today that he has no intention of quitting or even changing his lifestyle.
Riley B. King was born on Sept.16, 1925, near Itta Bena, Mississippi. His parents separated when he was about five years old and he was raised for a time by his mother and grandmother in the hills near Kilmichael, Mississippi. Both women died when King was still a youngster and he recalls that he lived by himself and with relatives between the ages of 10 and 13. As a boy, King barely knew his father, a big, silent man, whom he describes as being “a mystery.” King, however, became acquainted with his father later in life.
King remembers that his mother taught him that kindness to others is almost always repaid, and her passing — when she was only 25 — had a profound effect on his life. It lead him on an endless search for love, acceptance and approval from others and shaped the approach he would take to his musical career.
King's initial contact with music came when he began singing in church at age four. He then picked up the guitar, later combining his playing and singing in presentations to his fellow farmhands at weekend parties and fish fries. He also sang blues for his fellow troops in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and Fort Benning, Georgia during his brief stint in the Army in 1943.
Arriving in Memphis in 1946, King located his mother's cousin, guitarist Bukka White. White housed King and showed him the musical ropes in Memphis for about one year. King later found work as a musical pitchman for Pepticon tonic on the Memphis-based WDIA radio, a competitor to KWEM in West Memphis, Arkansas, which featured Sonny Boy Williamson II advertising Hadacol tonic. In 1949, already a success, King assumed the more prestigious position of disc jockey with WDIA, dubbing himself the Beale Street Blues Boy and later B.B. King. It was also in 1949 that King first entered a recording studio. Four sides for Jim Bulleit's Bullet Recording and Transcription Company were the result, but these received only a lukewarm response from the record-buying public.
Returning to the studio in 1951, this time at Sam Phillips' Sun facility in Memphis, King recorded several tracks for the Modern/RPM label. It was a session later that year in Memphis, however, that yielded King's breakthrough to the R&B market, "Three O'Clock Blues." From there, his career as a touring bluesman was launched. A string of hits followed in the early and mid-1950s, including "Please Love Me" and "You Upset Me Baby."
King toured the U.S. ceaselessly in the 1950s. In 1956, he played 342 one-night stands. His career suffered in the 1960s, however, when black interest in blues dipped. Tax and marital troubles added to King's problems. Undaunted, he continued to make records and tour, recording the landmark album Live At the Regal in 1962.
King's career was revived in the late 1960s when his work was discovered by the white rock audience. With this new market opening, King issued "The Thrill Is Gone." It hit No. 15 on the pop charts. The song also sparked renewed interest on the part of black record buyers, and the song peaked at number three on the R&B charts. In the months following the release of the "The Thrill Is Gone," King's horizons continued to expand. He began performing at venues such as The Fillmores on the East and West coasts, and jazz clubs in New York City. In addition, on Feb. 3, 1969, King performed in Memphis for a group of social chairmen for college campuses in the U.S. He was a hit, and this solidified his standing with the young, white audience. He performed a series of concerts with the Rolling Stones and also appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in October 1970. More touring, recording and forays overseas and into the upscale markets of Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe followed in the '70s and '80s and continues into the current decade.
King's talent is undeniable and his accomplishments staggering. He counts 75 albums in his own discography. Yet, the subject of B.B. King is a touchy one with some followers of blues music. Discussion of King's meaning, value and, especially, integrity, these days, can become heated. Some afficionados say they feel King compromises his art to remain in the limelight. In the April 8, 1996 issue of The New Yorker, black author, jazz scholar and respected theorist of American culture, Albert Murray, stated that King lacks sincerity onstage these days. "He's got to shake his head and frown, and it's just going to be the same goddam note he already played 25 years ago," Murray told the magazine.
Some Chicago blues artists complain that King has left them — and the streets — behind. And in an immediate sense, King appears to have abandoned many blues players and followers of the genre. In his role as ambassador, he travels in limosines and is usually inaccessible, beyond a smile and a quick autograph, to interested followers. He leads a secluded life of endless hotel rooms, tour buses, security personnel, airplanes and stages. He has cultivated a star's lifestyle. King's appearances with politicians, and in sitcoms and commercials, are additional fodder for negative critics. But his efforts almost always seem to open doors for blues music. Viewing King's value to the idiom in the longterm, it seems that all blues artists, now, and in the future, can only benefit from his persistent penetration of upscale, unusual, well-paying markets. Almost any blues musician would probably admit they would gladly trade places with King, or, at least, take a taste of his royal lifestyle. And when it comes right down to it, King's commercials these days for Wendy's and McDonald's restaurants differ little from his advertising work for Pepticon tonic almost 50 years ago.
Among King's more recent accomplishments is the release of a CD-rom disc, which he hosts, appropriately, while seated in the computer-generated front seat of one of his old tour buses. King was also recognized in Washington, D.C. in 1996 at the Kennedy Center Honors for his lifetime contribution to the nation's culture. Among those attending were U.S. President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. "Blues All Around Me: The Autobiography of B.B. King," by King with David Ritz, was published by Avon Books in late 1996.
The following interview with King was conducted while he was on a recent tour of the upper Midwestern United States. It focuses on his feelings about life, his spirituality, his perception of himself, and his reaction to the public's perception of him as a patriarch — not only of blues, but of American culture.